For two years, a T-shirt that I received as a present hung on the back of my office door, its caption prominently visible: What would Jean Valjean do? Visitors never mentioned it. But after I took it down the other day in order to start wearing it to the gym, a couple of colleagues asked what had become of it.
Turns out they had been intrigued by it after all. I like to think that the question on the T-shirt provided a frame for shaping responses to some of the challenges we all face.
The T-shirt question resonates with an article that appeared in The New York Times a few years ago about a 19-year-old college student in Utah who was charged with negligent homicide in an automobile accident. Texting his girlfriend while driving, he crossed the yellow line and hit another car, leaving two people dead.
That story caught my attention for several reasons. First, we are all concerned about the dangers of telephoning — let alone texting — while behind the wheel. In the second place, the driver in this case was a college student, an earnest young man like those I see every day, who was devastated by what he had done quite unintentionally. Against the advice of his lawyer, he admitted that he had been texting and took responsibility. And finally, having as a young girl lost my only brother to a fatal crash, I am still shaken by such stories, even decades after my family’s tragedy.
But it was the sentence imposed by the judge that riveted me. It included 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a requirement that the young man read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables “to learn,” — I quote from the Times — “like the book’s character Jean Valjean, how to make a contribution to society.”
As it happens, at the time this article appeared, I was re-reading that voluminous masterpiece, a gripping portrayal of good and evil, of crime and revolution, of society in its horrors and, sometimes, the human potential for goodness. Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who is saved by the example of a saintly man, is one of the most memorable creations of modern literature. In depicting his hero’s moral struggles, Hugo delivers haunting insights into history and politics, greed and ingratitude, youthful passion and mature love, punishment and reform.
That Utah judge understood not only the transforming potential of individual example and community action, but also the redeeming value of great models, whether literary or historical. In the breadth of his gaze, the profundity of his insights, and the intricacy of the connections he suggests, Hugo focuses his readers on right and wrong. I think about Hugo, Jean Valjean and the judge each time I read about colleges considering the elimination of French, German or the classics. It was recently reported that one university board considered them “obscure.” Obscure, indeed. They teach us what our society so needs to know about compassion, understanding and forgiveness. They teach us what it means to be — like Jean Valjean — human beings with all our foibles and our immeasurable potential.
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This column first appeared in the July 27 Huffington Post online and is reprinted with permission.